U.S. to impose strict rules on "bio-pharm" crops
Tuesday March 4, 6:35 pm ET
By Randy Fabi

WASHINGTON, March 4 (Reuters) - The federal government is planning to require U.S. producers plant experimental pharmaceutical crops further away from nearby fields and use separate farm equipment to protect the nation's food supply, industry sources said on Tuesday.

Biotech companies like Dow Chemical Co. (NYSE:DOW - News) and Monsanto Co. (NYSE:MON - News) are engineering corn, soybeans, tobacco and sugar crops as a cheaper alternative for mass producing medicines to treat a range of human ailments.

Consumer advocates, farm groups and the food industry have strongly urged the Bush administration to implement tough regulations on these so-called "bio-pharm" crops to prevent them from seeping into the food supply and undermining consumer confidence.

The U.S. Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration (News - Websites) are expected to propose new industry guidelines as early as Thursday, industry sources said. USDA would not comment on the release.

An industry source, who was briefed on parts of the proposal, told Reuters the proposed guidelines were "a step in the right direction" and would help avoid another ProdiGene-like mistake.

ProdiGene Inc., a privately owned Texas biotech firm, agreed to pay about $3 million last year after USDA accused it of mishandling its bio-pharmaceutical corn crop and contaminating other crops.

Beginning this crop season, biotech companies must follow these new guidelines to obtain federal permits to plant their experimental crops, industry sources said.

Another farm industry source, who wished not to be identified, said U.S. producers would need to use separate farm equipment such as tractors and combines when planting medicine crops.

Industry officials said the guidelines would "most likely" allow the planting of biotech crops in the Corn Belt, but under stricter conditions.

The USDA will require producers to plant the new technology at least one mile away from conventional crops, an industry source said. Current USDA regulations were for a half-mile separation.

The USDA and FDA were also expected to announce increased inspections at these fields.

Many details of the report were still unclear. This included recommendations from food industry groups that the government allow biotech companies to use food crops for pharmaceutical purposes only as a last resort.

The Grocery Manufacturers of America, the Food Marketing Institute and the National Restaurant Association (News - Websites) have also urged the government to halt new plantings of new medicine crops until the guidelines were in place.